Only in suburban America could a mall be your downtown. The has provided the missing link between Wesley Chapel and its residents, building a community hub with charity events, infectious nightlife and a lot of shopping.
The open-air mall concept has resonated with the area. Over half the customers come from a five-mile radius, also dipping both into New Tampa and greater Pasco County. Business has been good, with the mall enjoying a steady uptick in patrons since opening in 2008.
And Wiregrass attracts more than just shoppers. Shady trees, signature restaurants, hopping lounges and lounge furniture create escape routes for those going to the mall against their will.
“We’re like a mall without a roof,” said Debbie Detweiler, director of marketing for Wiregrass. “Our uniqueness is the outdoor concept, a main street feel.”
Yes, having more than 100 retail fronts and big anchors like Macy’s and Dillard’s help boost traffic. But Wiregrass’s success story is based more on its design and people than jeans and T-shirts.
Billing itself as an open-air entertainment destination, Wiregrass has made good on its claim by delivering an eclectic and valuable mix of parades, concerts and philanthropy. Your classic “something for everybody” approach centered on Paseo Drive, Wesley Chapel’s Disney-like main street.
Wiregrass tests the boundaries of a traditional mall experience, relying on social media and grassroots marketing to identify and develop events appealing to the entire family. and , an organic farmers market, have proven big hits. Last year’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, a 5K walk, raised approximately $200,000. Detweiler and her peers are proud of those numbers, having both the infrastructure and following to host premier charity events.
“It’s very rewarding to me to know that we can make a difference in providing an enjoyable experience for our guests, as well as having a part in helping many organizations and charities achieve their goals,” said Detweiler.
The laundry list of events serves a bigger purpose.
“Community events bring everyone together,” said Detweiler.
The Wiregrass engine is driven from a quiet office at the rear of the mall. Forest City, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, manages the property. As a NYSE-listed national real estate company with $11.5 billion in total assets, Forest City was betting on the outdoor mall concept working in a growing, but shopping-starved demographic.
Having survived and thrived in an economy deflated by consumer confidence, Forest City has won the wager.
Forest City’s local staff has set high expectations, and delivering on those expectations is a herculean task rooted in a marketing plan crafted a year in advance of special events and mall promotions.
“It’s an entire team effort to be able to provide the customer experience the center offers,” said Detweiler.
The mall business is a people business and making a connection with the community is paramount to success, especially when ramping up for the holidays and special spikes like the recent tax-free weekend that lit up the mall with back-to-school shoppers.
Detweiler employs a keen mix of social media applications to spread the Wiregrass word directly to the patron’s point of attack: phone, tablet or computer. Facebook, Twitter, email and Shoptopia are prime hunting grounds for today’s 2.0 shopper. And Detweiler’s team is fully engaged, reaching out at real-time speeds with valuable intelligence sometimes lost in sales circulars.
“Shoptopia is like the Facebook for shoppers,” said Detweiler.
Detweiler uses the same social media tools for her own intel, giving the people a voice in store expansion. She received approximately 100 responses to “what stores do you want to see.”
The interactive relationships built through social media help gauge trends. What about today’s economic landscape? “Shoppers are looking for rewards programs and deals to stretch those dollars,” said Detweiler.
The biggest – and most curious – response comes from Fresh Market. Held the first and third Saturday of each month, the open-air market full of local, fresh and organic food packs a mean Facebook punch. Over 50 vendors and artists swarm Paseo Drive, sharing eco-friendliness with a green audience happy to leave behind the plastic trappings exclusive to most malls.
Nothing spells community like a weekend farmers market. And maybe the event symbolizes why Wiregrass is different, more like a social hub with family values.
Kind of like a downtown should be.